Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rejecting Instructional Level Theory

A third bit of evidence in the complex text issue has to do with the strength of evidence on the other side of the ledger. In my two previous posts, I have indicated why the common core is embracing the idea of teaching reading with much more complex texts. But what about the evidence that counters this approach?

Many years ago, when I was a primary grade teacher, I was struggling to teach reading. I knew I was supposed to have groups for different levels of kids, but in those days information about how to make those grouping decisions was not imparted to mere undergraduates. I knew I was supposed to figure out which books would provide the optimal learning experience, but I had no technology to do this.

So, I enrolled in a master’s degree program and started studying to be a reading specialist. During that training I learned how to administer informal reading inventories (IRI) and cloze tests and what the criteria were for independent, instructional, and frustration levels. Consequently, I tested all my students, and matched books to IRI levels using the publisher’s readability levels. I had no doubt that it improved my teaching and students’ learning.

I maintained my interest in this issue when I went off for my doctorate. I worked with Jack Pikulski. Jack had written about informal reading inventories (he’d studied with Johnson and Kress), and as a clinical psychologist he was interested in the validity of these measures. He even sent a bunch of grad students to an elementary school to test a bunch of kids, but nothing ever came of that study. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from Jack about that issue.

He had (has) a great clinical sense and he was skeptical of my faith in the value of those instructional level results. He recognized that informal reading inventories were far from perfect instruments and that at best they had general accuracy. They might be able to specify a wide range of materials for a student (say from grade 2 to 4), but that they couldn’t do better than that. (Further complicating things were the readability estimates. These had about the same level of accuracy.)

For Jack, the combination of two such rough guestimates was very iffy stuff. I liked the certainty of it though and clung to that for a while (until my own clinical sense grew more sophisticated).

Early in my scholarly career, I tracked down the source of the idea of independent, instructional, and frustration levels. It came from Emmett Betts’ textbook. He attributed the scheme to a study conducted by one of his doctoral students. I tracked down that dissertation and to my dismay it was evident that they had just made up those designations without any empirical evidence, something I wrote about 30 years ago!

Since then, readability measures have improved quite a bit, but our technologies for setting reading levels have not. Studies by William Powell in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s showed that the data that we were using did not result in an identification of optimum levels of student learning. He suggested more liberal placement criteria, particularly for younger students. More liberal criteria would mean that instead of accepting 95% word reading accuracy as Betts had suggested, Powell identified 85% as the better predictor of learning—which would mean putting kids in relatively more difficult books.

Consequently, I have sought studies that would support the original contention that we could facilitate student learning by placing kids in the right levels of text. Of course, guided reading and leveled books are so widely used it would make sense that there would be lots of evidence as to their efficacy.

Except that there is not. I keep looking and I keep finding studies that suggest that kids can learn from text written at very different levels (like the studies cited below by Morgan and O’Connor).

How can that be? Well, basically we have put way too much confidence in an unproven theory. The model of learning underlying that theory is too simplistic. Learning to read is an interaction between a learner, a text, and a teacher. Instructional level theory posits that the text difficulty level relative to the student reading level is the important factor in learning. But that ignores the guidance, support, and scaffolding provided by the teacher.

If the teacher is doing little to support the students’ transactions with text then I suspect more learning will accrue with somewhat easier texts. However, if reasonable levels of instructional support are available then students are likely to thrive when working with harder texts.

The problem with guided reading and similar schemes is that they are focused on helping kids to learn with minimal amounts of teaching (something Pinnell and Fountas have stated explicitly in at least some editions of their textbooks). But that switches the criterion. Instead of trying to get kids to optimum levels, that is the levels that would allow them to learn most, they have striven to get kids to levels where they will likely learn best with minimal teacher support.

The common core standards push back against the notion that students learn best when they receive the least teaching. The standards people want to know what it takes for kids to learn most, even if the teacher has to be deeply involved. For them, challenging text is the right ground to maximize learning… but the only way that will work is if kids are getting substantial teaching support in the context of that hard text.

P.S. Although Lexiles have greatly improved readability assessment (shrinking standard errors of measurement and improving the amount of comprehension variance that can be explained by text difficulty), and yet we are in no better shape than before since there are no studies indicating that if you teach students at particular Lexile levels more learning will accrue. (I suspect that if future studies go down this road, they will still find that the answer to that issue is variable; it will depend on the amount and quality of instructional support).

Betts, E. A. (1946). Foundations of reading instruction. New York: American Book Company.

Morgan, A., Wilcox, B. R., & Eldredge, J. L. (2000). Effect of difficulty levels on second-grade delayed readers using dyad reading. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 113–119.

O’Connor, R. E., Swanson, H. L., & Geraghty, C. (2010). Improvement in reading rate under independent and difficult text levels: Influences on word and comprehension skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 1–19.

Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (1996). Guided reading: Good first teaching for all children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Powell, W. R. (1968). Reappraising the criteria for interpreting informal inventories. Washington, DC: ERIC 5194164.

Shanahan, T. (1983). The informal reading inventory and the instructional level: The study that never took place. In L. Gentile, M. L. Kamil, & J. Blanchard (Eds.), Reading research revisited, (pp. 577–580). Columbus, OH: Merrill.


Diana Sharp said...

Great Article! Also fits well with a quote from a Stahl & Heubach (2005) study with second graders:

"The results of this study suggest that children can benefit from reading material well below the 95% accuracy rate traditionally recommended for instruction. In fact, students appeared to benefit from reading stories in the first sampling even though they were reading them with an average accuracy rate of 85%, which would be considered frustration level. Students were able to benefit from reading material at these lower levels of accuracy because of the higher support they were given for the reading through the routines of the program. In this program, students were supported in their reading by having multiple exposures to the same material, by having stories read to them, by exposure to the vocabulary prior to their own reading, by reading the story at home one or more times, possibly by echo reading, and by partner reading…We argue that the instructional reading level for a given child is inversely related to the degree of support given to the reader. That is, the more support given, the lower the accuracy level needed for a child to benefit from instruction. In classroom organizations such as our fluency-oriented instruction, students benefited from reading material of greater relative difficulty because they were given greater amounts of support for that reading."

I've continued to wonder about this issue as it relates to technology-supported reading, in today's rise of e-books. Right now those books just give whole-word support when a child is stuck on a word, much as was common in whole-language classrooms. But what could it mean for beginning or struggling readers if at a touch of a word in an e- book they could immediately see and hear how all the letters and sounds in that word go together, as a teacher might do on white board (e.g., "n igh t" for "night")? I know there is more to teacher support than decoding, but this is a big stumbling block for many kids that if removed could help decrease frustration in early stages and widen the interest level of books available to beginning readers. Curious to know if anyone else thinks this has promise.

Maureen Lutz said...

I don't disagree with the idea that guided reading or text level matching might be overused in elementary schools. But I worry that educators might throw the baby out with the bath water (as we often do). I believe that instructional levels are important for children who have difficulty learning to decode.
For much of the student population, learning happens with with difficult text. And for all of the student population, learning happens with read alouds, mixed-skill-level group projects, and partner reading. But when it comes to children with reading disabilities in the area of decoding, I think that practice reading accurately is very important.

Tim Shanahan said...

The concern for struggling readers and beginning readers is legitimate. There is no question in my mind that text can be too hard for some kids. We've overdone it trying to get everyone to the correct instructional level, but early on, when one is trying to learn to decode, that is a good thing. Indeed, the baby might be slipping down the drain as we speak!

Ben Sanders said...

This thesis is consonant with the concept sometimes referred to as "equity pedagogy" i.e., that what under-achieving students need is not to have academic work watered down, but, exactly the contrary; to have their work "watered up." The well-documented problem with the former is that is quite simply boring and demeaning, and thus alienting to a good number of students (especially those less likely to engage in work just because the teacher told them to). While watering up the curriuculum obviously does require considerable scaffolding and (metacognitive demystifying of the intellectual learning process), when effectively implemented, the results are usually spectacular (proving that all kids CAN in fact achieve at high levels, given the right conditions). Among many others, Northwestern Professor Carol Lee's work provides especially compelling evidence of this.

Tim Shanahan said...


I appreciate your comments and generally agree with them. I am not satisfied that Carol has actually published such studies. She makes claims, for instance, that the interpretations that students make of contemporary literature are as high level as those required of classical literature. Unfortunately, she has no way of measuring such equivalencies, and, thus, I remain skeptical that some of the games and texts are really as demanding as Shakespeare, etc. With that quibble aside, it is clear that there really isn't much evidence supporting the levels we've been teaching with, so trying something harder could possibly work--as you suggest.

thanks again.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article. It confirms what i have been thinking in relation to my 5 year. Olds reading. My daughter is in her third term of reception and i have felt the level of reader the school wants her to read is too easy. She is bored by the stories and if i read the story to her first as the teacher says to she repeats it back in a bored sing song voice. If she reads it herself and I help with any difficult words she seems to enjoy the experience a lot more.

Robby said...

I disagree with your thinking. First, let us define "guided reading" appropriately from Fountas and Pinnell's work. "Guided reading is a context in which a teacher supports each reader's development of effective strategies for processing novel texts at increasingly challenging levels of difficulty" (p. 2, Fountas & Pinnell, 1996). To understand this definition, we first must understand when guided reading should take place within a framework of literacy instruction. (Please visit for a copy of the graph described below.) Imagine a graph with a downward arrow from the top left corner to the bottom right corner. The top left corner is labeled "Read Aloud." The bottom right corner is labeled "Independent Reading." In between are labels such as "Teacher Modeling," "Shared Reading," and "Literature Circles." The label of "Guided Reading" is located just before independent reading in the bottom right corner. It is the last piece of instructional support before the student takes that level of text to independence. This means that the texts a student takes on in guided reading should allow the student to use and practice integrating the skills and strategies the he would use while reading independently. Explicit teaching of reading skills or strategies should have already occurred in instructional situations prior to guided reading (i.e., modeling, shared reading, etc.). That is why Fountas and Pinnell maintain that a student should require "a minimum of support" (p. 2, Fountas & Pinnell, 1996) while reading a text in guided reading. The text should be just beyond the difficulty of the texts the student can read independently – the definition of instructional level text. The student cannot integrate known strategies while struggling through a text that is too difficult. As adults, we rarely, if ever, pick up a text in which we could only read 85% of the words. It has been estimated that adults regularly read texts in which they have 98% word accuracy or above (see Richard Allington’s work).

"The ultimate goal in guided reading is to help children learn how to use independent reading strategies successfully" (p. 2). The “strategies” Fountas and Pinnell refer to are NOT isolated comprehension strategies. These are reading strategies that support a proficient reading process (see Getting It Together by Ian Morrison). It is ludicrous to introduce a child to a highly complex text without ensuring that a well-working reading process is in place. A beginning reader’s process will break down if too much demand is placed on any one factor of the process (i.e. content of the text). According to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), one factor of text complexity is reader-dependent (Appendix A, CCSS). If this is true, then the leveled readers we use with our youngest readers (in a carefully thought out, increasingly challenging order) are indeed complex for that reader at that time. The Continuum of Literacy Learning by Fountas and Pinnell is the best example of how text complexity should be considered when teachers choose leveled texts.

Finally, Marie M. Clay published years of research around the reading process and how children become literate. Much of Fountas and Pinnell’s work, as well as many other authors, is based on the work of Marie Clay. Some of her research highlighted her work around instructional levels and scaffolding based on many trusted sources like Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky. Should we assume that these pioneers of educational and psychological research are mistaken? I think not! (Please see Becoming Literate and Change Over Time in Children’s Literacy Development both by Marie M. Clay, specifically the bibliography.)

If we do not consider how to appropriately think about and utilize text complexity in kindergarten and first grade, the Common Core State Standards could cause more harm than good.

Tim Shanahan said...

In fact, these "pioneers in education" are not wrong about these things, because none of them ever put forth a scheme for how students reading levels and text complexity levels should match up. Just because those who have promoted such schemes claim to be doing so on the basis of Vygotsky's theory of zone of proximal development does not make their placement schemes research based.

To say, on the basis of research, that students need to be placed in a particular level of text because it would somehow optimize or improve their learning requires that one place students at different text levels to see what the learning differences would be. That, up to now, has not been done with the F&S levels. Like you, I do believe that the F&S levels seem logical and appropriate for use with beginning readers. However, I also am eagerly awaiting the results of efforts now underway to formulate an alternative beginning-reading placement scheme based on actual research with children.

Beyond grade 1, however, the evidence swings away from your claims: Being placed in the levels of materials that you say must be avoided seems to lead to more learning than placing students in the relatively easy texts that you (and F&S) recommend.

You might have noticed that the common core does not specify beginning text levels (something I pointed out in my blogs on this issue). One of my concerns is that teachers will move to hard text too early, not giving students a sufficient chance to figure out the decoding system, etc. However, continuing to focus on materials that are "almost at the independent level" beyond that neither matches well with the common core recommendations nor with actual research data.

Robby said...

Why do you think that Reading Recovery is still highly rated on the What Works Clearinghouse website? Since this instructional text leveling "scheme" is used in Reading Recovery, and extensive research (according to the WWC website) has proven Reading Recovery to be effective in raising reading achievement, then wouldn't it be logical to say that this instructional text leveling idea (combined with high-quality teaching, of course) is effective?

As for your comment that placing students in a certain level of text "requires that one place students at different text levels to see what the learning differences would be," this has been done. Marie Clay and Richard Allington, among others, have written about the initial work of leveling text and how students respond. In What Really Matters for Struggling Readers, Allington says, “Clay, and her colleagues in New Zealand and the United States, actually tried the books out with children! They recorded the difficulty children had and used that information to locate each book within a level of difficulty.” He goes on to describe the criteria they used to level the texts and to explain that others, like Fountas and Pinnell, have adapted their leveling systems from Clay’s work.

Other work has been done around instructional levels and links with time on task and comprehension. Treptow, Burns, and McComas (2007) published a study that was adapted from an earlier study by Gickling and Armstrong (1978) linking these factors. Chall (1996) has also published work around qualitatively assessing text difficulty for comprehension, which lends itself to the intention of the instructional leveling system – scaffolding.

While I agree with you that beginning readers should have time to “figure out the decoding system” in appropriately leveled texts, I must go back to the point I made in my earlier post about word accuracy. What adult would read a text with only 85% word accuracy without 1) becoming frustrated or 2) meaning breaking down? That means that 15 out of 100 running words would be unknown to the reader, thus interfering with meaning or causing the reader to stop and lookup the word. This is unrealistic. So, why would we force children (after first grade, according to you) to endure this very thing? It does not make sense!

After meeting and talking with some of the contributors to and/or people who have influenced the Common Core State Standards, I don’t think they intended for the text complexity portion of the Standards to be interpreted in that way. I believe that Freddy Hiebert and Sally Hampton would cringe at the notion that 85% word accuracy is sufficient, for any age reader.

Tim Shanahan said...

The reason why Reading Recovery is rated positively by WWC is because there is at least one well-designed study showing that it can confer an advantage to children on at least one reputable measure of literacy. But, remember this discussion is not about Reading Recovery instruction but about leveled books, and it would be impossible to say whether the benefits of RR are due to the book leveling or to other factors. I am the What Works Clearinghouse advisor on reading and it would be very illogical to say that the reason that RR works is because of the book leveling. To make such a claim you’d have to test it directly by providing the RR instruction to some kids who were using the leveled books and to some who were not. Of course, that has not been done.
Clay did not ever study the impact of different levels of books on children’s learning. She may have tried books out with kids and noted that some books were harder than others (who hasn’t?). But the issue isn’t whether some books are harder than others. The issue is does working with particular levels of books or some specific leveling scheme confer a learning advantage or not. Your idea that you can intuit what children will learn best from is interesting, given that it contradicts actual results with children. (I’m always amazed at anyone who believes things so strongly even when those beliefs don’t match existing evidence).
Freddy Hiebert has been quite vocal against making beginning texts too hard, and she has been intentionally silent on the difficulty levels of texts for older students (in fact, she has gone out of her way to make the distinction). Freddy is currently working with Lexile on a large study in which they are trying to come up with a better scheme (than the one you have embraced) for leveling beginning reading books. But if their work bears fruit and we are better able to sequence the levels of beginning reading books, we still will not know how best to place children within that sequence if the goal is to maximize student learning.

Robby said...

It seems that most of the research around leveling texts or matching texts to readers has been done by observing struggling readers or students with disabilities. What specific research shows that using a leveled text approach (utilizing a leveling system similar to the one I have previously described) has a negative impact on typically progressing young readers?

Tim Shanahan said...

That’s correct and since just observing students using text cannot tell you whether such use is more or less beneficial than anything else (though that obviously does not stop people from making such claims without supporting evidence) – which is why we need research.
There is no research that I know of that finds using leveled books to have a negative impact on readers, but there are studies showing that the book match strategies recommended by F&S do not confer as much learning advantage as placing students in harder texts (see citations in the blogs that you are commenting on). Thus, the negative is that students do not learn as much.

Robby said...

The Morgan study and the O’Connor study you have referenced both report their findings using poor or struggling readers. Where is the research with typically progressing students? O’Connor said it best: “we cannot expect the relations found for these poor readers in Grades 2 and 4 to generalize to average-reader populations” (p. 16).

Tim Shanahan said...

That’s interesting. Your original argument was that leveled books were the best way to teach students to read because they are used in Reading Recovery, a program for the lowest achieving first-graders. And you are upset that I pointed out counterevidence drawn from studies of students who were below average (though not as low as the RR kids). Thus, your theory has shifted to one in which working with hard texts is good for low readers, but would not be good for the students above them. I guess the smartest, most accomplished and supported kids just can’t handle the challenges.

That suggests to me is that you are no longer trying to understand what might help kids learn, and have shifted to arguing for the instructional status quo no matter what the counterevidence might be. I don’t know if the common core is going to lead to higher reading achievement, but I do know that if enough teachers respond to it in this way (“I’m going to keep doing whatever I am, no matter what the evidence”), then there is nothing will improve for our kids.

Robby said...

The Morgan study used dyad reading, which paired a proficient reader with a poor reader, as the context for taking on text at the student’s frustration level. The O’Connor study used a one on one “adult listener” to provide unknown words and definitions to students while they attempted to take on text at their frustration level. Are you suggesting that elementary teachers use these instructional strategies as they start using more difficult texts? It seems neither of these studies used anything like guided reading, neither the routine nor purpose. Since guided reading is the main setting where I (and Fountas and Pinnell) propose instructional leveled texts should be used in the elementary classroom, I would like to see at least one successful study that uses a similar instructional approach with text at the student’s frustration level. Where is this research?

Also, you never answered my previous question. Where is the research with typically progressing students?

Tim Shanahan said...

I agree with you, Robby. If you want to continue to use guided reading in that way you are using it, you should have at least one study that shows its effectiveness. There is no such study on guided reading so you should stop until you have done that study.

EmTeaches said...

I teach Kindergarten in a K-2 school. Do you think that K-1 teachers should use the Guided Reading approach while students are mastering foundational skills? Should the teacher be exposing the students to complex text through read alouds? At what point should young learners begin grappling with more complex texts? And, how should primary grade teachers correctly scaffold and support students during this process?

Tim Shanahan said...

Good question. You definitely should be reading more complex texts to students in preschool, kindergarten, and grade 1. Children learn language from being read to, and selecting texts that lead the kids a bit intellectually makes sense.

However, do NOT ramp up text difficulty for reading at these ages/reading levels so that kids have a chance to figure out the decoding system.

Jody said...

I liked this article and found it helpful. Two questions: Is it still true that reading (and rereading) accessible text is important for building fluency, as Richard Allington suggests in his book What Really Matters for Struggling Readers? Second, and also based on Allington's synthesis of the research, what about sheer volume of reading? If students are mostly reading texts that they need my assistance to comprehend, then they are reading many fewer words per day (week, month, year) than if they are mostly reading texts they can access readily, since they can read those on their own both in my class and at home?

Tim Shanahan said...


Amount of reading must have a positive impact on language and literacy, just as practice in any set of skills seems to help keep those skill sharp and effective. However, despite our field's satisfaction with that idea -- that reading improves reading -- we don't know much about it. We don't know how much practice makes a difference, what kinds of texts make the greatest difference within such practice, or even how to get students to read more on their own.

There have been a number of recent studies suggesting the difficulty of using reading practice to improve reading ability. So, it is not that amount of reading doesn't matter, it is just that we don't have any clear idea on how to accomplish our goals by those means.

My best bet is the way that you get students to read more on their own is to make sure they can read well AND to engage them in interesting uses of literacy in the classroom. The idea of challenging text might open up more opportunities for interesting reading in the classroom.

Lida said...

I think the key point in this article is that good teaching must occur with more complex texts so that our students learn to become thinkers. Complex text provides the "meat" or opportunity for teaching and learning to occur. My concern is for students with disabilities who have considerable deficits with decoding and fluency who may not be able to read the selected text with 85% accuracy. We have to be able as educators to ensure that these students have access to these lessons through scaffolding and instructional supports. Does anyone know of a document that I could download that addresses specific research based scaffding and supports for SWD and text complexity?

mlinton said...

Thank you for offering an opposing perspective. As an elementary school principal, I admit to drinking the Kool-Aid re: guided reading practices. I also think that you are referring to one piece of reading instruction--not ALL parts of literacy block. I think Allington's "time with text" proposal has a place in a broader scope of teaching reading. So, now that we have a book room full of leveled books (based on F&P Levels), what should I propose to our faculty as a reading practice to take the place of guided reading?
The one caution I've always had with F & P materials is--they have a for-profit investment in the topic. I'm sure you make a profit doing public speaking, writing, etc.. but at least you seem to be advocating for teh common good.

Tim Shanahan said...

Mr. Linton--

Thanks. I definitely do not want to get into questioning people's motives (mine included). What happens in any enterprise is that we get locked into our claims and a sensible set of ideas can become rigid.

Back in the 1990s when F&P published their book on guided reading, beginning reading textbooks had become (briefly) hard and teachers weren't sure what to do. Guided reading seemed like a useful antidote to many (me included).

But, in retrospect, when you put all your emphasis on getting kids to the just-right level and almost none on how to you ramp up from there, the teaching suffers.

There is nothing wrong with the F&P materials as far as I know (except possibly too heavily slanted to literature, and their levels, beyond the beginning ones, seem contrived). Those texts could get added to classroom libraries for the "time with text" that you mention. Or, there is no reason that you couldn't get readabilities calculated on those texts and use them in a more dynamic way to start ramping kids up to higher levels. We don't necessarily have to throw out past books, we do have to match them to kids in more thoughtful ways (and that will require that we teach more--helping kids to learn from those harder materials).

Anonymous said...

Dr. Shanahan, Would you comment on the efficacy of the Treasures reading curriculum in relation to the CCSS? What criticisms are typically raised and how have these been addressed? I am enjoying the blog. Thank you so much. Dona

Tim Shanahan said...


Treasures has been a terrific and successful program, but let's be honest. It was not built for the common core. Just like its competitors, its readability levels aren't set high enough to ensure that students will reach the CCSS levels (though adding some text supplements to them can help address that problem), nor does Treasures have an aggressive plan for "stretching" children or raising their levels as they learn. (Of course, there are plenty of things that common core has not changed--such as the strong emphasis on foundational skills instruction and the need to have students reading high quality texts; and there are other features that CCSS has not changed very much, such as the need to include substantial doses of informational text, which reading programs have been increasing steadily throughout the last decade).

So, you definitely can adjust Treasures to make it fit the common core better. But I was very happy that in 2009, while common core was being developed, that we were green lighted on creating a new program to replace Treasures. This new program is not a revision of Treasures, but a completely new program from top to bottom. While everyone else was swapping out some selections, revising some questions, and adding new labels to everything touting their common core readiness, our authors and editors were toiling away on a common core reading program.

Our new program, Wonders, has raised the readability levels of the texts, provided supports for guiding students to succeed with this complexity, included even more informational text, asked more text dependent questions, supported close reading, and increased the amount of writing about reading. Wonders is very common core.

So, if you have an older program, including Treasures, you definitely can get by with it, supplementing it and altering it in various ways to bring it closer to CCSS, but when you're looking for a core program entirely based on CCSS, then take a look at McGraw-Hill's Wonders.

I know readers are skeptical that any programs could truly be common core at this point, and I appreciate it that--the sales people used to call me Dr. No when I was director of reading in Chicago... So don't believe me. But do look for yourself. Compare any new program that claims to be common core (including Wonders) with that company's most recent pre-common-core program; look to see what has changed and how much has changed and you'll see what I mean. Most programs are making the same kinds of adjustments that you may need to make yourself with those older programs.

Tina Howlett said...

Taking into account Krashen's second language theory of Comprehensible Input (i+1), could you pleas address how "challenging" text could be applied to beginning and intermediate high school English language learners.

Tim Shanahan said...

Remember Krashen's theory is just that... a theory, and not a terribly well supported one at that. Nevertheless, the idea that learning of a language will be enhanced when the students have the opportunity to figure it out in a communications or learning situation is very appealing. The issue here would be... what constitutes input (comprehensible or otherwise)? If you believe the only input to an English learner is the message in the text, then shifting to more challenging text would be a disaster (as you'd be taking away any opportunity to learn). However, if the input includes that text along with all of the other information being input by the teacher, the other kids, and even the EL child himself/herself, then this isn't that big a stretch. That's why so many of the scholars who actually study the learning of English learners (as opposed to those who just pontificate about it) are so supportive of common core. They believe it increases the possibility for intellectual development of EL students. See for a growing body of resources on this.

Karen S. said...

What many of you are talking about but in different constructs is instructional support. In a reading recovery lesson, instructional support, or specific teaching points based on careful observation of a student's behaviors while reading continuous text are what increases students' proficiency in reading. Merely using a leveled text is not enough to move students forward. Focused instruction that addresses some aspect of the reading process just beyond the reader's grasp, whether it be decoding, self monitoring or comprehension, and that the reader must get under control in order to move forward is at the crux of effective reading instruction. Hard, instructional, or independent book levels should be understood and used with knowledge and skill. When that happens, students can make excellent progress.

Tim Shanahan said...


Although Reading Recovery is a fine program, let's remember that it is used to teach beginning reading to strugglers... it is not a terrific model for teaching other more sophisticated aspects of reading -- which is why the research does not support this notion with older students. Thanks.

Mark Pennington said...


If I read carefully, I don't see reference to independent reading. Do you see value in leveled books, by any criteria (if so, your take), for independent practice?

Tim Shanahan said...

That's a good question, Mark. I think book leveling can be useful both for instructional materials and for independent reading (though not necessarily how we have used them in the past). In a classroom it is useful because it can give a teacher a better sense of how much scaffolding and support is likely to be needed, while for independent reading it can help a teacher guide students to something that may be easy enough to read on one's own--the harder the text, the more motivated and/or supported the student will likely need to be. The problem with this latter recommendation is that it often turns into a prohibition (kids only being allowed to read books at particular levels). Studies show that when students are particularly interested in a book or have a lot of knowledge about what they are reading, their ability to comprehend goes up (in other words "their level" changes). I think such guidance or advice can be helpful, but its limitations can be summarized easily in two words: Harry Potter (a book that was way too hard for many of the kids who read it anyway because they wanted to).

Anonymous said...

I sincerely appreciate this dialogue. Thank you for providing a forum for such important conversations. These thoughts/questions have been swirling in my head. How exciting to have found all of the input offered here. This second grade teacher is grateful!

c zimmermann said...

Finally, someone is righting the ship! I have been reading and hearing about Instructional Level Theory for sometime. It goes against my extremely successful 20 years of at risk, urban high school experience. For a 9th grader reading at the 5th grade level, a slew of 6th grade level texts for a year will create a really great 6th grade reader that moves onto the 10th grade. I need my students to grow 2 to 3 years in the year that I have them. The only way that I have found to do this happens is by teaching high school level text.

I wonder if the problem is that in the past literacy for the high school student has not been clearly defined. High school teachers seemed to think that reading tasks are only used for students to glean content, not to teach reasoning and evaluation. If all I want is for my students to explain what happened in a particular battle in the Civil War or what the plot of a novel is, then guided reading and young adult novels is the way to go. Unfortunately, this does not teach a student to read critically. The Common Core seems to right the ship.

In my mind, I see a college student picking up a journal and reading an article. The student puts it down because it is so foreign to him/her. Whoa! This is too hard: long sentences, long paragraphs, no bold face type--long words, too! Where is the prior knowledge bullet? What happened to the vocabulary definition tags? Where is the big idea I am supposed to focus on? What! No guided reading questions? In the real world, a student has to be able to comprehend a text without all the supports teachers give them today. I believe all these supports handicap them in the long run.

So what do I want my students to be able to do? To pick up any type of cold reading and be able to interact with it, make sense of it, evaluate it, compare it to what others say in other venues. I want my students to enter the world of ideas and be able read instructions. I don't want students who simply skim for answers. This means at risk high school students still need to grapple with Ralph Waldo Emerson and all the other high school level texts and then read whatever blows their hair back for fun on the weekends.

I have developed successsful core strategies, or what I call sequences, to teach readers who are significantly behind to engage in high school level text, but I don't see enough of these in the professional literature out there. Wilhelm and Buehl come the closest--but I don't see them connecting the the strategies to participating in the world of ideas like excellent secondary teachers do everyday. Perhaps there needs to be a better marriage between scaffolding strategies and sound unit design.

The leveled instructional texts subject came up in a professional development about competency based instruction today. Allington was referenced for the umpteenth time. I need more research on this issue on the issue of text complexity. Thanks for the start.

Toomey+ said...

Thia is the best discussion on reading instruction that I have ever read online. Thank you to all the contributors. I have had serious qs about leveled reading and this is the first extended discussion that I know of. Would appreciate more links since F and P is so widely used in schools.

Anonymous said...

Hello. I am trying to wrap my head around the Common Core and what it means for my students. I teach Grade 3 in an international school, using AERO standards (American Education Reaches Out), which have been aligned with the common core. I have been reading your posts about leveled instructional texts and agree with much of what you have to say. I have also looked at the instructional model of Reading Wonders, which I believe you co-authored, and see that it does, in fact, use leveled texts as a part of the instructional cycle AFTER the entire class has read a complex text with lots of modeling, direct instruction and vocabulary work. Have I got this right? In looking at my literacy block, I am thinking of using two or three thematically related short, complex texts to introduce a theme, model strategies and skills, and teach vocabulary and grammar in context, then release students to leveled groups for small group instruction and independent or paired practice involving text-dependent questions and finding evidence, practicing reading strategies etc. This could be followed by related tasks at the sentence or text level -- using the introductory texts as models. I would love some feedback. Does this seem like a reasonable basic structure?

Tim Shanahan said...

You sort of have it right, but not quite. Yes, students are asked to read a series of selections that are at CCSS levels (starting just below the levels specified per grade level and going a bit beyond them by the end of the year). Those selections include guidance to help support students in making sense of those "challenging text selections" so they can read them without being told what they say.

Then there is a follow up with selections more at what has traditionally been thought of as instructional level pieces. However, these small group texts are different versions of the same text. So a student who is asked to read an easier than CCSS level text can use that reading as a scaffold to take on a harder version of the same text (I think of them as stair-steps books--and the idea is that instead of students just reading something at "their level" we are scaffolding the students to take on harder levels of text from that base.

I definitely think it is a good idea to have students reading a variety of texts at a variety of levels. But you also have to think about how will you make it possible for students to handle the harder texts and to stretch them up from the lower ones.

Iam the Universe said...

Kids who read and hear only Dora/Kayu/Thomas the engine/Pooh/Disney-fairy-princess/Clifford the red dog/bookish Arthur/monster themed or other kiddy stuff vocabulary abhor scientific words and their usage. To them it's "uncool" to be using refined vocabulary often found in science books. I observed that as a kid, ourselves growing up in other country, it was seen as a thing of intelligence to be knowing about natural phenomenon and familiarity with related vocabulary. So glad! that my kids are awed and curious about the amazing web of life and are not circumscribed just to aforementioned theme designed only pink, only blue, red, yellow books of the media world :) P.S *This comment is meant only to serve as a bridge between far away interconnected lands and by no means to offend someone personally or nationally*

Stephanie said...

I am a parent of a 6 year old who is struggling with reading. The school he goes to uses the leveled reading along with the Lucy Calkins method. My son is not engaging because according to him the books he has to read are boring. I've talked to the teacher to see if we can move him up to a higher level, but she says no because he is not 95% accurate. However, it sounds like you would recommend at home using the harder texts he wants to read, and simply helping him with the words he doesn't understand. I don't think I'm going to get the teacher to change the books he is reading at school, but hopefully just working with him at home on harder texts, instead of the texts she sends home he will be better off.

Anonymous said...

I am just so confused, as I am a firm believer in the research that Shanahan has discussed in this blog from 2012. However, it is so frustrating to see how many districts have bought 100% into guided reading and F&P. We seem to have more now than since Reading First days. it is hard to find a district in the state of Texas that doesn't do the F&P guided reading. Why???

Anonymous said...

I have a concern about the use-well overuse--of the LLI program. I see it being "the" go-to program for all students below level--all year long. We are currently testing Kindergarten students in an effort to put them into an LLI group as soon as possible. Now, this is only for about 40 minutes a day, but now they are also saying they will use it in summer school as well. I just feel like creativity is going out the window as well as meeting individual needs. I am I wrong? I often go rogue about some things so I wonder if it is just me bucking the system if you will.